Floyd Schmoe -- 101 Years Of Peace And Action
IN THE PARKING LOT of Paradise, 101-year-old Floyd Schmoe rests his stubbled chin atop his walking stick and gazes at Mount Rainier through thin cataracts and thick glasses.
Some days the world looks blurry, but today it is in focus. He sees the mountain clearly. Fourteen times he's climbed this peak, starting back in the '20s, as a mountain guide, ranger and the park's first naturalist. Fourteen notches carved in his ice pick, though the ax itself disappeared long ago. Where or when, Schmoe cannot remember. It has been 75 years. The mountain looks the same - brilliant white, pure, mounded, not a Matterhorn, but still immense. Mount Rainier reminds him, he sheepishly admits, of a woman's body.
At 101, Schmoe still thinks about these things, about everything, in fact. He marvels at the miracle of chlorophyll, keeps up with the Hong Kong changeover, worries about young prostitutes in Bangkok, fusses over a tiny incubator baby recently born to one of the waitresses in his Ravenna retirement home. He can no longer read, but continues to write. His 14th book, a novel-in-progress, is about Lucy and the first generations of people who wandered across the Strait of Gibraltar from Africa to Europe "only 2 1/2 million years ago, not long in geologic time."
On that scale, a century seems brief. In human years, of course, Schmoe has lived a long and remarkable life. A sixth-generation Quaker and peace activist, Schmoe has been a forest ecologist, marine biologist, college professor, leader of volunteer service groups. He has been shot at and held prisoner while doing elief work in six wars, but he has never touched a gun.
During World War I, he drove an ambulance and carried wounded soldiers off France's battlefields. During World War II, he helped arrange evacuation of European Jews, and shipped seeds, cows and clothing to war victims in Asia and Europe. When Seattle's Japanese Americans were relocated to barbed-wire camps in Idaho, he left his job teaching forestry at the University of Washington to go to the internment camps to help them. After the atomic bomb was dropped, Schmoe took volunteers to Japan to rebuild homes in the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later wars in Korea, the Middle East and Africa called him to construct orphanages, salvage hospitals, dig irrigation ditches and repair wells.
For his efforts, Schmoe has been threatened with death, investigated by the FBI, served tea by Japan's Empress Michiko. He has received many accolades, including Japan's highest civilian award and an honorary doctorate from Tufts University. The latter is particularly notable because of the other degree recipients that year: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Norwegian actress Liv Ullman, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and champion of refugee children. Schmoe, then 87, fell instantly in love. Before leaving the ceremony, the octogenarian shook hands with O'Connor. He hugged and kissed Ullman.
Glory is not what motivated Schmoe to devote his life to peace. Still, he dreams about the big one. Schmoe has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three years in a row by Rep. Jim McDermott.
"Tenacity," McDermott says. "There's lot of people who did this thing or that, but he did everything! Another cause comes along and he's right there."
Competition for the Peace Prize includes global dignitaries, obscure atoll priests, former President Carter. Yet the centenarian is hopeful. He hopes that if he wins the Nobel, Ullman will kiss him again.
EATING BREAKFAST in Schmoe's retirement residence is like dining on a cruise ship. The silver-permed women cluster at square tables in matching pastel knits. The men wear navy blazers and golf cardigans. Schmoe has donned a natty red corduroy vest over a white dress shirt, white pants, white Velcro sneakers. He has carefully parted his thick white hair, wiped the plastic-rim bifocals that magnify his summer blue eyes.
He leaves his cane at the door, proffers his arm, chivalrously opens my single-serving box of Raisin Bran with a shaky flourish of table knife through purple cardboard.
The food is excellent here, he confides; the housekeeping, perfect. Only problem, he complains, is that most everyone is so darn old. He is not like them. "Most are waiting," he says, pouring the milk left at the bottom of my cereal bowl into his coffee. "Waiting for the mail, waiting for the next meal, waiting for the ambulance."
Schmoe is not waiting. Never has. Life is too short and too long for that. After breakfast, he will scrawl the next chapter of his book on a yellow legal pad with a felt-tip marker. After lunch, he will deputize a visitor to buy diapers for the waitress' tiny incubator infant, bananas for the baby's family. In between, he will dream about the Nobel Peace Prize, about joining the ranks of Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.
Lofty, yes, but Schmoe's fantasies about the Nobel Prize are grounded in base reality. He thinks a lot about the prize money.
"Can you imagine how many people I could help with a million dollars?" he asks.
We return to Schmoe's white-carpeted room. It has a small desk, three chairs, a twin bed, a television and VCR, a bookshelf dominated with books by himself and Ullman, nine photo albums, a half-dozen videotapes, snapshots of his late wife, Ruth, with whom he is still very much in love, his four children, 10 grandchildren and 37 or so great-grandchildren. Three portraits hang on the wall: Empress Michiko, Ullman and Sadako, a 12-year-old Japanese girl who died from cancer after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
A bronze statue of Sadako holding a folded paper crane soars over the north end of Lake Union in Seattle Peace Park. Schmoe bulldozed the park from a weedy patch when he was 95, applying for permits, raising funds, organizing volunteers, raking gravel, digging holes, planting trees, mowing the grass.
Schmoe can no longer heft a mattock, but in his own way, he still gets around. His thoughts zoom around the world, into space, through time, a hundred years, a thousand miles, a million stars. The former mountain guide is too excited to sit in his saggy wicker chair for long.
He leafs through scrapbooks, fingers a fragment of meteorite, wanders around the globe: Paris, the Ice Age, St. Petersburg, Korea, Kenya, Mount Rainier in late winter, blanketed under 30 feet of snow. Finally, we land in Bangkok.
"The children I'm most concerned with now I have never met," Schmoe says. Young girls, prostitutes, sold into sexual slavery, chained to their beds in Thai brothels. They are only 10, 12, 13 years old. "This is authentic," he says. "It's in National Geographic, on `60 Minutes,' the newspapers. . . . Trouble is, the planeloads of men. It's a huge, profitable business; the government has such a big take. There's no hope of eradicating prostitution. It been around a million years. But there must be something . . ."
Schmoe sends $20 a month. That keeps a few girls in school, out of the brothels, but there are thousands more. "I think about the million dollars if I get the Nobel Peace Prize," he says. "I would give as much as I could, probably through UNICEF and Liv Ullman."
Schmoe has always been this way, moved to action by photographs in the paper, news about people on the other side of the world.
From the time he was a boy, squirming on a hard chair through weekly Quaker worship, Schmoe had been taught that war is wrong. During World War I, the young man saw why. As a conscientious objector and medical relief worker, his job was to pull mutilated young men from battlefield trenches. Each soldier carried a hypodermic needle filled with anesthetic in case of injury, but those who had lost arms could not reach it. Once they were wounded, the Red Cross didn't care which side they were on. Germans, French, British, American - all wounded were treated as humans. This made sense. The battle did not.
"What I'm trying to say is, if we know people, we have some responsibility for them. I feel a responsibility to help if I can. That's the way I felt about the survivors of the atom bomb. Hiroshima was a city of about 400,000 people. A quarter died. Thirty thousand were children. We killed 30,000 children with that atom bomb. . . . If I went to Japan and said, `I'm so sorry,' they would have kicked me out. But if I went with my own money and my own hands built a house for a survivor, they would understand."
So he went. The city was rubble. People huddled in bomb craters covered with old tatami mats and galvanized iron. Schmoe made five trips over five years. He took 25 American volunteers. They built homes for 30 Japanese families.
He remembers Mrs. Tanimoto and the lily pond. After the bomb dropped, Mrs. Tanimoto pulled her small daughter from the wreckage and ran through burning streets to the lily pond, child in her arms. But when she finally reached the tiny lake, it was already filled with the bodies of dying people who had tried to escape the flames. Mrs. Tanimoto couldn't even see the water. Her daughter lived; her husband later died of radiation sickness. Mrs. Tanimoto was a beautiful woman, Schmoe recalls, but she always looked worried. The volunteers rebuilt her family's home.
IT IS LATE AFTERNOON, shortly before supper in the retirement home. Schmoe wants to show me a film he made in 1952, during his last house-building trip to Japan. Mrs. Tanimoto is on it, he says.
We pop in the videocassette, but see only a scrolling blue menu of cable movies, hear only jarring rock music, the jabbering host. The Hiroshima film has been erased.
"How can this be?" Schmoe wails. "This is junk!"
It is the end of a long day. We shuffle back toward Schmoe's room, the hallway stretching on and on. Televisions blare through closed doors. We pass a slight man and dumpy woman leaning on their stainless-steel walkers.
"How are you?" the man asks the woman.
"I'm depressed," she says. "I can't see, I can't hear and I'm all alone."
The man eyes the blue crocheted afghan draped over the bar of her walker. Then he smiles. "Well, you're one heck of a good bingo player!"
Normally, Schmoe has a keen wit, but since he's still fuming about the video, he can't hear the humor. He does not speak for several minutes. He leans heavily on the railing, head bent. He looks very sad.
"I wish you could meet Liv Ullman," he whispers. "Liv sends me roses every year on my birthday. I'm hoping to get the Nobel Peace Prize soon. Thirty-three percent goes to Uncle Sam. I'd give an equal amount to UNICEF, that's Liv's pet charity, and use the rest for prostitutes in Bangkok."
He quotes Disraeli. Whenever faced with an intractable problem, he says, Disraeli would go to bed. Either he'd think of a solution in his sleep or the problem would disappear on its own by morning.
Back in his room, Schmoe does not go to bed, as Disraeli would have. Instead, he insists on sliding each of his videos into the VCR. Perhaps the Hiroshima tape was mislabeled. Perhaps it was not erased after all. Perhaps that part of his life is still intact on film, to be rewound and replayed over and over again.
We pop in video after video, lingering on a tape of his 90th-birthday party. It is summer, in a garden, tinkly voices and ice cubes. He is surrounded by dozens of friends in sandals, laughing, strolling, eating wedges of apple pie off paper plates.
"I do not know these people!" Schmoe cries. The camera zooms in on Schmoe at 90. Same thick shock of white hair, but his cheeks are full, he stands straight, his bones have more heft. He looks about 70. He is telling how he met the guy standing next to him.
Schmoe stares at the video, hands trembling on the arms of his wicker chair. "Who are they?" he shouts. "I have never seen these people before!"
"That's you, Floyd."
He leans closer to the screen, peers at the handsome white-haired man chatting affably in the sunshine.
"Is that me?" he asks.
MORNINGS ARE BETTER than evenings.
Sunday mornings are best of all because at 10:40, Schmoe's dear friend Aki Kurose pulls up to the nursing home in her gray sedan. They drive to University Friends Meeting, the silent Quaker worship service Schmoe founded decades ago.
The meeting house is across the street from his Peace Park. Schmoe and Kurose stand side by side at big windows overlooking the small park. The centenarian and septuagenarian have known each other since World War II, when Kurose, then a teenager, was released from Minidoka internment camp. Schmoe hired her as a secretary. She was inept at clerical work, they both agree, but went on to greatness as a first-grade teacher, biologist and peace activist.
"The birch has its new leaves now," Kurose comments. Schmoe nods.
Across the street, someone has draped the statue of young Sadako with a rainbow of folded paper cranes, but Schmoe can't see that far through the trees. Schmoe gazes at the blur of green during the hour of silence, hands clasped in his lap, yellowed thumbnails resting on the cane between his knees. He looks content. Over a century, he has perfected an ability to sit quietly and still be quite alive.
Later, back in his room, Schmoe says that during the meeting, staring at the green leaves, he was thinking about the miracle of growth. How humans are made from the dust of a small planet and the light of a distant star. How chlorophyll plus sunlight convert the raw elements of earth into starches and sugar to make the world green.
He asks me to look up the definition of chlorophyll in his heavy dictionary: C(55)H(72)MgN(4)O(5). (NUMBERS IN SUBSCRIPT!) He ponders, blinks, pauses. "Very complex," he says.
Quakers believe there is a spirit that survives after death. "I suppose it's for eternity," Schmoe says, "but I can't imagine what eternity is. It seems like a long time."
Oddly, he quotes Henry Kissinger: The most important thing we have learned in the century is the extent of our ignorance.
"There is so much that we don't know, we can't know," the centenarian says. "We have to simply accept the fact that we are ignorant. We don't understand why the grass is green. Why the sky is blue."
Schmoe has enough questions to fill a book. He wonders why there is life. He wonders why there is war.
In the afterlife, Schmoe believes the soul will have complete knowledge, that total understanding will be available without effort, simply as a feeling. He believes he will have a sense of togetherness with everything, with his late wife, Ruth, and his late son Ken and his tiny daughter Beth, who died two days after she was born, when they were snowed in on Mount Rainier and could not get to a doctor.
IT HAS BEEN 75 YEARS since the newlyweds snowshoed up to Mount Rainier to serve as winter caretakers at Paradise Inn.
"We were both acutely aware of the healing calm of the wilderness around us, of the forests below and the skies above, and of the great silent mountain which stood over us," Schmoe wrote in "A Year in Paradise," his book about living on the mountain.
"At that time I was only a few months and a few miles removed, in time and space, from the suffering of battle areas in Europe, and I still felt the physical and spiritual effects of it. . . . Our Quaker-trained consciences told us that war is a crime for which we are all responsible and for which we must all bear a heavy burden of guilt. From our Quaker teaching we both knew also the value of quiet - of space, and calm and silent places."
On a Wednesday afternoon in early July, Paradise is not too crowded. Schmoe tours us through the inn's kitchen, where he lived that cozy lamp-lit winter with Ruth. A huge stainless-steel mixer and a chugging industrial dishwasher dominate their former living room. Schmoe's cane slips on the greasy tiled floor.
He feels his memory sliding, too. In the lodge, he doesn't recognize things he thinks he should. But all the rangers recognize him. He wears a plaid tam topped by a red pompom, his trouser cuffs carefully tucked into blaze orange socks, "mountaineering style." He resembles his picture hanging on the wall in the mountain museum.
The rangers crowd around in their Smokey Bear hats. "Welcome back to your mountain, Mr. Schmoe!" they say. "Wow! 102!" (Actually, Schmoe is 101 until Sept. 21, but he likes to round up.)
"Yup, I'm still here," he chuckles. "What's the latest on the West Side Trail from White River down?" The young rangers cannot doubt the sharpness of this centenarian's mind. He reels off a few jokes, poses by the cougar he stuffed and mounted, charms a female naturalist. Schmoe is in good spirits.
He squeezes Kurose's arm on the way out. "This is the last time I'll visit this Paradise," he quips.
Kurose has baked an apple pie, Schmoe's favorite, which we share at a picnic table next to a forested ravine near Narada Falls. The falls twist down the mountain from Paradise ice field, eventually feeding a nearby creek. A few miles downstream, Schmoe's tiny daughter Beth is buried under a stone cairn.
Schmoe listens to chipmunks chatter, watches gray jays swoop among the hemlocks and Noble fir. He says something about the other side of the river. "I think if there's no green grass, no green trees in heaven, I'll turn around and come back."
He finishes his slice of pie. He sits at peace on a park bench below Paradise, completely surrounded by green.
Paula Bock is a Pacific Magazine writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's photographer.
Published Correction Date: 09/21/97 - Due To A Typographical Error, The Estimated Number Of People Killed By The Atomic Bomb In Hiroshima Was Incorrectly Stated In This Pacific Magazine Cover Story About Longtime Peace Activist Floyd Schmoe. The Correct Number Is 140, 000.
Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.